The Royal Opera – Sarah Angliss’s Giant – Karim Sulayman, Jonathan Gunthorpe & Galina Averina; directed by Sarah Fahie; conducted by Ben Smith

Sarah Angliss
Giant – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Ross Sutherland [sung in English with English surtitles]

Charles Byrne – Karim Sulayman
John Hunter – Jonathan Gunthorpe
Rooker – Galina Averina
Madame DuVal / Curator – Anna Cavaliero
Sister Mary / Curator – Melanie Pappenheim
Howison – Steven Beard

Stephen Hiscock (percussion), Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba), Olwen Foulkes (recorder), Nicola Hicks (viola), Tiago Soares Silva & Amalia Young (violins)

Sarah Fahie – Director
Hyemi Shin – Scenic Designer
Sarah Angliss – Sound Designer
Nicky Gillibrand – Costume Designer
Adam Silverman – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 March, 2024
Venue: Royal Opera House, Linbury Theatre, Covent Garden, London

Many people know the story of the human curiosity or ‘freak of nature’ Joseph Merrick, if only because of John Hurt’s depiction of him in the film The Elephant Man (memorably using Barber’s Adagio). Perhaps not much less remembered is the case of the 18th century ‘Irish Giant’ Charles Byrne, who voluntarily displayed himself and entertained the public on account of his unusual, extreme height. In London he encountered the prominent surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, who wanted his body after death for dissection and medical examination. Byrne devised a plan with friends that his corpse be taken away in a lead-sealed coffin and buried at sea to avoid such continued exhibition. But Hunter managed to intercept it at this death in 1783, and between 1799 and 2023 the skeleton was displayed at the Hunterian Museum. It is still held by the Royal College of Surgeons while debate continues as to whether Byrne’s wishes should, at last, be respected.

Giant, a new stage work by Sarah Angliss and librettist Ross Sutherland, is a ‘fictionalised account’ of these events, though its narrative (sparse as it is) seems to follow the outlines of the historical facts closely enough. But they are filled in by themes of what the programme note calls ‘obsession, deception and betrayal’, and there’s the rub. These are robust evaluations but aren’t really justified within the piece itself, which lacks much development of motivation or character, despite a fair amount of telling (diegesis) by some of the roles, not least Stephen Beard’s deadpan Howison (Hunter’s bodysnatching accomplice). Hunter gives little away about his intentions other than that he wants Byrne’s body for medical purposes. We can reasonably surmise that there are ulterior motives, and his resorting to the shady Howison might imply something more cynical and exploitative – his tartan waistcoat and breeches suggest an air of charlatanism, if not only his Scottish background. But with virtually no interaction between them, their relationship is not entirely clear and we don’t learn much else in that respect.

Byrne himself remains a cipher, even an enigma, which may partly be the point in this study of scientific exploitation, but it’s still a curious strategy to adopt with respect to the eponymous character. There is little exploration of his personality that drew such admiring crowds, and his generally irascible and laconic temper here (even if understandable in the context) is at odds with the charismatic and affable figure of the historical record that made his case celebrated in life as well as in death. Even in the work’s elements of showing, the dialogue often seems obliquely directed beyond the characters on stage rather than to them, in somewhat elusive analogies and metaphors. Taken with the rather episodic nature of the narrative, it lacks drama and tension overall.

More fruitful as a dramaturgical concept is the mixing of a suggestion of the 18th century with the present day, fusing Byrne’s life with his continued, post-mortem presence as a scientific exhibit at the Hunterian until our own time. The audience is made complicit in that voyeurism by having Howison address it ironically as though it is participating in an anatomy lesson (and he is surely meant to be identified more with the audience than the historical action on stage on account of his contemporary, not 18th century, costume). The theatricality of Byrne’s case comes full circle therefore – just as he lived theatrically under the public’s gaze in his natural life, and his biological remains continued to do so posthumously, so theatre is now utilised as the forum to reappraise the morality of his treatment and reception by the public. But as a piece of music drama it doesn’t really convince, since it scarcely transcends the sense of a lecture or didactic display.

Commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival in 2018 but only premiered there in 2023, musically this 90-minute composition feels like a terse Britten chamber opera (Angliss’s own website calls it an ‘electroacoustic chamber opera’). The score comprises a sequence of ambient sounds more than a thoroughgoing musical texture as such, generated by a mixture of 18th century instruments (recorder, viola da gamba, violins, and viola) alongside modern and electronic ones. In the context of a work about scientific inquiry, it’s telling that two of the most sustained passages seem to draw upon disciplined Baroque technique and style: after Hunter has tried to get Byrne to give his body for medical purposes after death, the gamba is played in a series of free arpeggio figurations like the unmeasured preludes which loosen up a player’s fingers and mind at the outset of a suite of dances. And at Byrne’s death, a few blurred iterations of a descending phrase sounds as though it wants to become a lament in chaconne form, like Purcell’s famous instance for Dido, but it isn’t developed beyond a few bars. Ominous electronically generated tones, high strings and harmonics, and percussive timbres otherwise do little more than create a certain weak, instantaneous tension, but there is no overarching structure.

The dialogue is spoken or half-spoken at least as much as it is sung (generally in brief, recitative-like phrases). Rather than opera or more deeply integrated music drama, it feels perhaps more like a melodrama in the technical sense of the 18th and 19th centuries, that is, text declaimed over background music (to the credit of this work, given its subject, there isn’t really any hint of the melodramatic in a general sensational meaning). The performers here do that effectively, in their singing just as much as in speaking. Karim Sulayman employs a gentle high tenor register, rather than a reedier, forced falsetto, compellingly expressing Byrne’s youth and vulnerability. Galina Averina cultivates a slightly shrill edge as his manager, Rooker, implying a certain cynicism and untrustworthiness on that character’s part, as also in her non-committal answer to Byrne’s directions for the disposal of his body. A pair of curators at the present-day museum bookend the work – the two female voices, largely unaccompanied, serve like a minimal chorus. They are aptly disembodied in effect here by Anna Cavaliero and Melanie Pappenheim, and are reminiscent of the way Britten contrives to express the voice of God in his second Canticle Abraham and Isaac. Ben Smith and the half-dozen group of instrumentalists are attentive in sustaining atmosphere and effect, insofar as the intermittent score permits them. If the work contributes to the debate about what to do with Byrne’s remains, then it will have served the public good. But it’s perhaps not unreasonable to ask whether music drama shouldn’t also be more emotionally gripping.

Further performances to March 15

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